Many times while playing games, I have had occasion to pause and contemplate. I am often put into situations where I am forced to reflect on my personality and the choices I have made. I look around the table at three other players who are all looking at me, distrust and fear reflecting in their eyes. I am in the lead in whatever game we’re playing, or sometimes I may even be far behind – either way, everyone looks at me as the final boss at the table, the player who needs to be taken down. In these cases, I stop to ask myself: “Am I just a hateable person?”
Before we tackle the question of whether I truly am just a terrible human being that people naturally want to beat, let’s talk about the greater issue at play: social dynamics. Let’s face it – we’re all social creatures; dozens, even hundreds, of philosophers throughout history have agreed on this. But more importantly, our social interactions can massively throw off the perfectly logical decisions that, if you’re like me, we desperately strive for. Humans often behave unexpectedly, whether due to past experiences, emotion, or simple distrust, and this unexpected behavior is precisely what makes many games interesting.
However, if you aren’t aware of how the people at your gaming table may behave, you can be at a massive disadvantage. Even if you have a massive lead in a game of Magic: the Gathering – Commander or Mistborn: House War, you can always lose if you get too confident and draw the wrath of the rest of the table (something I know all too well). Similarly, you can sometimes win games you otherwise shouldn’t have been able to win through clever manipulation of the other players. Thus, you can’t truly call yourself a skilled gamer unless you’re able to not only make the correct strategic plays, but also the correct social plays.
This is the beautiful thing about games – contrary to the antisocial gaming nerd stereotype, I’ve found that many of the best gamers I know are charismatic, socially skilled people. This isn’t a coincidence, nor is it necessarily just personal preference; rather, it is because gaming as a pastime actively encourages players to learn how to figure out and fulfill the wants of others, using this to convince other players to help them.
Now, what I’m talking about probably sounds like manipulation – and that’s because in a way, it is. While you are manipulating the desires of others to fulfill your own goals, the way in which you do it is critically important. You will never be a successful manipulator if you don’t offer your “victim” something worthwhile in return for their help. To get what you want you need to offer something that someone else wants, and to do that you have to understand what they want. Through this interaction, games force players who want to improve to learn how to read people and work with them to accomplish a shared goal, even as each tries to undermine the other.
This is all well and good in games with more than two players, but what about games like Chess or Shoudo? Can we apply these social skills to interactions with only a single player? As I have obviously set up with the previous two sentences, yes – even if you can’t exactly work with a player whose only goal is to defeat you, there are still ways you can gain an edge from knowing how to read people. As we’ve already established, no one is able to make purely logical decisions – everyone is affected to some degree by emotion, bias, and self-confidence. If you understand your opponent, whether they are aggressive or conservative, calculating or intuitive, prideful or humble, you can use that information to predict how they will react to your plays and plan ahead to counter those reactions.
Bringing this discussion back around to the question of whether I’m a terrible person, the answer is, obviously, yes, but more importantly I’m just bad at this social aspect of games. I tend to be outwardly confident, and I give off the impression that everything I do is calculated to gain me advantage over the rest of the table (which of course it is). This makes it hard for me to work with people, because I simply can’t convince them that it’s worth their while if they think I’m always getting the better end of the deal (which I usually am). Politics is all about subtlety, and I am unfortunately not a subtle person. It’s one of my biggest flaws, both in games and in life, and I’m always trying to improve this aspect of myself.
I hope you’ve learned something from my flaws and our discussion of games and politics. Join me next time when I’ll be celebrating the launch day of our Kickstarter for Shoudo – that’s December 16th for those of you keeping score at home – by talking about all the design philosophies that went into the game from its birth as a simple game played with chess pieces on a deck of cards to the beautiful, elegant game it is today. Until then, happy gaming, and may your machinations always be subtle!